Building the Lake of Dreams

The real estate agent met us at the property by the sheds, off the gravel road.

“It’s a failed hog farm,” she explained. “After the hog market crashed some years back, it foreclosed. It has gone through a few different agencies who have listed it, but there is not any interest in it.”

“I can see why no one would have any interest in it,” I said. “Without a house or any real usable buildings. The outbuilding for the pigs is not much value for anything else.”

She showed us through the rickety structures. Lauren tagged along and listened. I asked the agent many questions that she could not answer. She said she would be glad to meet me back at the office, and she could check on them.

“Okay. I’ll see you back at the office. I want to show Lauren the marshy area below.”

“Fine. Look around some more. I’ll see you later,” she said, stepping into her vehicle.

I led Lauren down the hillside and pointed out the spring coming from the side of the hill.

“It makes the land down here unusable,” she said.

“Yeah, right, unless you are going to build a lake.”

She smiled. She had me figured out. She walked up to the water and felt it.

“A nice 55 to 58 degrees,” she said. “That would make your lake unseasonably warmer during winter, especially at the top end here.”

I showed her the places where I would dam up between the hillsides and where I would dam up the creek down below.

“That seems easy enough,” she said. “The soil would be suitable for a pond. It already has a natural forage base with the marshy back ends that could act as brooding areas for juvenile fishes.

She started a lecture on how this ecosystem could naturally sustain itself with a marshy area where bass can ultimately breed. Those were the moments when I found her particularly attractive, and I was not listening much to what she was saying. Her conservative recommendations were an affront to my fantasy adventure of raising a trophy bass fishery, but her eyes were a perfect blue and her curls were gorgeous. I put my arms around her, and she was still talking hesitantly. I kissed her.

My plans for the lake went ahead smoothly, with the sale of the land going without a hitch at a steal. I had plenty of money for the whole construction project and for long-term stocking and development. I would build the dams immediately before spring rains. I did not have any trouble finding a couple of guys in construction who were out of work, and I managed the project myself. By the end of March, my crew dammed it, with a few areas of sand and pea gravel added. As Lauren pointed out though, it naturally had some variation in soil and clay.

Most fishermen who go about building a trophy lake do it backwards. They build a lake and start stocking a bunch of big bass immediately to catch them. This ruins the lake since the big bass eat all the food right away. Then those fish are starving months later without any food sources, vegetation, or areas for food to grow.

I probably would have made that same mistake too, given I am an impatient fisherman. The difference is that I was now dating a scientist, a purist about ecology and what it takes to sustain a fishery naturally. She insisted that I do it right.

“You have to let it fill up, then let the baitfish and aquatic vegetation proliferate and reproduce for at least two years,” Lauren said to me one day at the lab.

“Two years? Are you crazy? I want some big bass in there later this summer.”

This conversation went on for some hours before I came to my senses. I would also have to wait to implement my secret stocking plan. I would have to do it right, to provide the ingredients that the lake needed to grow the baitfish and to grow the vegetation and habitat needed to sustain them.

I gave the lake a whole season to grow some plankton naturally. We planted water willow and some other aquatic vegetation that was native to the region. The only baitfish I stocked in those first few months were crayfish I purchased from Mississippi. I created breeding areas and some feeding stations in the shallow, marshy areas. I built little mud castles with wooden pallets at several places along shorelines, where I placed groups of the crayfish. Lauren was not pleased with me about this since they were not native. That summer we stocked fathead minnows and some threadfin shad. This was Lauren’s key suggestion for a Midwest lake that stays above freezing. Any farther north and the threadfin would die off some in the winter.

The few trees that had been removed were used as fish structures in the deeper spots of the lake, 12 to 24 feet deep. The deepest holes were dug there. We also manually created breeding boxes for the fatheads on some of the shallow shorelines with wooden crates where they could attach their eggs.

I noticed that by the fall, some tadpoles had hatched from the lake, obviously laid from frogs living in the muck of a drainage pond a few hundred yards away. Nature was going to take care of some food sources on its own.

By winter, I was out taking temperature readings at the top by the spring and found it to be around 50 degrees down deep there. That was in contrast to local lakes where surface temperatures could be in the upper 30s and deeper temperatures would be in the low 40s. Later, I would find ways to raise the temperature even higher during the mild winter months.

In the spring, I stocked bluegill and redear, two fish that are similar, but that live and breed in different areas and depths of the lake, so they would not be stunting each other’s growth or crowding each other out. They had plenty of food by then, and I was confident about stocking them both, even though Lauren discouraged the redear. Ray had helped me with my approach, and he was on board with stocking the redear.

After the hatchery truck left that day, I walked along the shoreline of my lake and imagined the giant bass that would one day be thriving there.

I walked to the top of the lake by the hillside where the spring came in. I looked over the still, shady water and was certain that this would be where my biggest bass would live, near the warmer water in the winter. I wondered what might lurk beneath these depths one day. Suddenly, I noticed a big bubble come to the surface right in the middle of the small cove in front of the spring. A few other bubbles followed. In the stillness of the spring afternoon, it seemed like the bubbles made some noises as they reached the surface. I imagined that they came from air pockets in the spring water. It made me think of a passage I once heard. I remembered it as something like this: “Deep calls to deep at the noise of the waterspouts. All the waves and billows flow over me.” I imagined that is how the bass would feel down there, at least.

My strategy for my lake development focused solely in doing whatever it takes to raise the biggest bass. I listened to Lauren on a couple small points and did not stock crappie. Even though bass will eat crappie, the species can overtake a lake and start competing with the smaller bass. I knew that could be a huge risk in stunting the growth of any juvenile bass. I also decided not to stock catfish. Almost all would stock catfish immediately since they are a prized food source, but I did not want catfish to interfere with what I was trying to do for the bass. Channel catfish are aggressive predators who can grow to giants, and I did not want them competing against my prized bass, even though their diets are somewhat varied.

Instead, in the second season, I stocked chub suckers, a costly and timely endeavor based on a hunch I had from some stuff I had read by Florida biologists about the best bass fisheries in the south. One biologist wrote a paper about how all the fisheries with the chub suckers grew bass of extraordinary size. Because these fish are long and soft, they are a perfect meal for a big bass. They do not evade capture easily and do not overtake a lake since they do not breed successfully there. I stocked what I could find at a high cost, spending more money than all my stocking efforts prior to this.

Lauren looked over a chub sucker in a bucket from the hatchery truck from down south. “$3.50 for one of these. What were you thinking, Jay? Why not some more shad?”

“Well, yes. I am going to add more shad, of course,” I said.

To me, the tanned and yellow chub sucker, long and skinny, looked like a filling and delicious meal. I was a fisherman who had learned to think like a big bass. Lauren was a fisheries scientist.

Lauren became enraged with me late in the second season. Instead of stocking fingerling northern largemouth bass as she instructed, I had taken a radical approach by stocking the expensive crossbred super bass from a hatchery further south. Most of them were 10-14 inches. A few were even bigger. I stocked fewer bass than they recommend for a 70-acre lake though. This is another thing I did that others, especially trained fisheries people, would not do. I stocked the ratio I had figured out in my own algorithm for growing the most incredibly-sized bass—not for yield or numbers. The bass I stocked would have at least three times as much food as what they might have in someone else’s pond. Even after Lauren’s objections, I installed fish feeders to spread out high-protein feed twice daily, to continue supplemental feeding of the farm-raised bass for a year or two. I could later use the feeders with some smaller feed for my secret winter stocker, rainbow trout. Lauren argued that the baitfish I had already stocked were adequate; all these other efforts were unnecessary. For my purposes, these deviations from traditional fisheries science were my means to an end: the world-record bass.

Now that I had a lake with some super bass in it, no matter how small they were, my mind started churning faster and faster with more ideas for stocking. Soon I had figured out how to convert the pig troughs into fish runways to create my own fish farm to save money and create a huge volume of feeder fish. Rainbow trout and chub suckers were my first attempts, since I knew those would be the high-protein meals that a giant bass would require. This had already been proven with the rainbow trout stockings out west. Every month in the news, California anglers caught another trophy in those lakes.

I transplanted shad from Baldwin Lake and also purchased some from a southern hatchery. The shad would eat plankton, reproduce, and proliferate all summer. The bass were essential to keep their numbers in check. Occasional restocking of shad was part of my plan though, because I had already seen how the guys at the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge did not keep some of the smaller lakes, like Devil’s Kitchen, stocked well enough with shad. To me, this was a key ingredient.

With reluctance, Lauren helped me with the runways and with fine-tuning the water temperature and filtration. I killed plenty of fish those first few months, but I was smart to put some in the lake right away as well. I was hoping to do some of my own stocking at the right times when the bass grew bigger, so I could stock fish in the right size slot, such as a five-inch rainbow trout, and later on, a six-inch chub sucker. This would also require a large volume of fish, which I could not afford at $3.50 per fish. My fish farm operation was more successful than I could have hoped. Early that spring of the third season, we decided to shock the lake to see how the bass were doing and what they could eat.

Lauren brought a small research boat from work that we could carry over to the lake from the trailer. I never built any kind of a boat ramp. This was not a fishing lake, after all. At least not yet.

Ray and Lauren led the survey since they had both participated in many over the years. In fact, I did not even go out with them. I watched from the shore. They said I would become too excited in that little boat and interrupt their study. I watched from the sidelines on the sunny April day, where bass could be seen making wakes in some areas, where they had come up to feed.

The first bass shocked up was about two and a half pounds. “Hey, great job, Jay. That’s excellent growth over the winter,” Ray said across the lake. They shocked some other spots further down in shallower water out of sight.

Back at the shoreline, Lauren kneeled on the bow, and I caught her as she jumped to the shore. “Hey, thanks, you two, for doing the survey. How did we do?”

Ray said, “Pretty good, really, Jay.”

He climbed out and pulled out his clipboard. “Twelve bass, all two to three pounds. All healthy and fat. That and two green sunfish.”

“What?” I asked, alarmed. “How did they get in there?”

Lauren said, “Birds. They are going to get in no matter what you do here.”

“Did you kill them?” I asked.

“No, why?” Ray asked.

“Those green sunfish are a nuisance. They can compete against the juvenile bass.”

“Aww, they are natural,” Lauren stated objectively. “The bass can eat them.”

“I hate them though,” I said.

“No worries,” Ray said. You should be able to start stocking your rainbow trout soon. Those bass will be big enough to eat some smaller trout.

Lauren had kind of a disgusted look on her face as we pulled up the boat and loaded it back on the trailer.

When we arrived back to Illinois, I kept thinking of more ways to increase the food ratio for my fish. I decided I would fertilize the lake and put in some more shad in a few weeks. My mind stayed focused on my one objective. Finishing out the semester and spending time with Lauren were secondary considerations.